Fashion legislation is ramping up. In France, policymakers are tackling transparency and traceability in a bid to curb pre- and post-consumer waste. In California, garment worker rights and extended producer responsibility (EPR) are front and centre. And the EU’s European Green Deal has prompted a spate of sustainable fashion policies, from design and production to packaging and end of life.
Many sustainability advocates agree that these measures are necessary to reform the industry that often lacks the incentive to enact systems change on its own accord. However, many brands report feeling unprepared and under-equipped to deal with the pace of change. The reason? Fashion lags in lobbying efforts.
In many industries, lobbying is a well-oiled machine that allows industry players to influence policymakers. This can be taken to corrupt extremes, leading many to see lobbying as a dirty practice that ties politics’ actions to deep pockets. But, in the case of sustainability, lobbying can result in more relevant and enforceable legislation, says Lisa Lang, director of policy and EU affairs orchestrator at innovation catalyst Climate-KIC, co-funded by the European Union. “All of the EU policies coming in the next five years were made with very little alignment to the fashion industry, because EU bodies tried to engage and the industry just wasn’t there in a consistent way.”
Compliance deadlines are approaching for the EU’s strategy for sustainable and circular textiles, for example, but there is still scope for industry to influence other elements, such as the microplastics policy and eco-design principles for fashion. “Not everything is lost, but the policies are more theoretical. It will be a big shock to brands when they come into play.”
Several organisations have tried to fill fashion’s lobbying gap. The American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) was established in 2000, merging the American Apparel and Manufacturers Association (AAMA) and Footwear Industries of America (FIA). The European Apparel and Textile Confederation (Euratex) also formed from a merger, in 1996, and its members now span 143,000 companies across the EU. More recently in 2022, the European Fashion Alliance (EFA) was born, bringing together international fashion councils in a bid to represent the interests of fashion creatives, rather than technical textiles and production stakeholders. The Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) — which organises the annual Global Fashion Summit — is a founding member of the Policy Hub, which represents more than 700 apparel and footwear stakeholders, from Adidas and H&M to Zalando and fibre manufacturer Lenzing, and uses their inputs to propose textiles policies for Europe. Its co-founders include the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), the Federation of European Sporting Goods Industries (FESI). There are many more besides, each with their own limitations, and their efforts are fragmented, says Lang.
Adding more organisations isn’t necessarily the solution, says Scott Lipinski, CEO of Fashion Council Germany and EFA. “If you don’t like an organisation or think they should do better work, join them. Don’t open a rival organisation, because then policymakers really won’t know who to speak to.”
When effective, trade groups and organisations can work with policymakers as bills are being drawn up in order to make legislation practical, enforceable and suitably ambitious, with realistic timelines. They also play a key role in translating those policies back to members as actionable steps towards compliance. But truly effective trade groups are hard to come by, especially in the fashion industry. The risk is that trade groups play to the interests of their members, with more powerful or wealthy players having an outsized influence, and those lower down the supply chain — including garment workers and manufacturers in the Global South, who activists say need greater recognition and support — are left out or overlooked. This results in policies that promote the status quo, and limit progress towards systemic change and sustainability goals.
If the trade bodies and interest groups seem fragmented, the industry is even more so. For existing organisations, the biggest challenge is how to create consensus from a mess of global stakeholders and supply chains, where business interests often compete with environmental and social sustainability agendas. On top of that, there is the challenge of getting the right policies in front of the right people, says Stephen Lamar, president and CEO of AAFA. “The US constitution has lots of checks and balances, so for something to get through, it has to pass a lot of hurdles,” he explains. “And there are so many interest groups clamouring for attention at all times; getting a message out takes a lot of resources.”
In January, AAFA introduced the Threads Sustainability and Social Responsibility Protocol, in coalition with the Responsible Business Coalition and the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). The protocol is intended to help policymakers create sustainability solutions for the fashion industry that are practical, workable and effective. Its seven key pillars (which make up the acronym-based name Threads) are: transparently developed and enforced; harmonised across jurisdictions and industries; realistic timelines; enforceable; adjustable; designed for success; and science-based.
It’s important for the fashion industry to forge ahead, continues Lamar, despite reservations about the nature of lobbying — or advocacy, which is the preferred term among newer organisations. “A lot of people look at lobbying and advocacy as a problem, but it’s enshrined in the US constitution. Our ability to petition the government for a redress of grievances is a first amendment right. It’s a function of a working democracy.”
Balancing consensus and representation
Policymakers are often pressed for time, and having to operate across multiple industries and issues, so one of the main functions of lobbying is to distil industry interests into short policy papers or briefings. “The most effective way to lobby is translating issues into something that people can understand,” says Lamar. “You’re talking to legislators or policymakers that don’t necessarily have hours to delve into the details, they might just have a superficial understanding or a passing moment to come up to speed.”
This often means nuance gets lost, and organisations have to seek consensus among their members to simplify their position to be effective. Creating a consensus among stakeholders is delicate work, says Lamar. “Different companies think differently about key issues, depending on whether they own their factories or contract them, whether they operate in one particular country or several, what segment of the industry they occupy. It’s our goal to find the intersection of interest.”
Lobbying in the fashion industry is made more complicated by the industry’s lack of global consensus, which is out of step with its position as a global industry. Each jurisdiction comes with its own limitations, as well as an entirely new set of policymakers to court and (often unwritten) rules to learn.
While the UK Fashion and Textile Association (UKFT) caters primarily to UK businesses, those businesses often trade in other countries, so the organisation tries to work with its international equivalents where possible, says CEO Adam Mansell. “It’s important to keep close contact with other trade bodies and embassies around the world, so we can inform our members of new legislation and prepare them for changes.”
In the EU, lobbying follows a strict set of rules through the EU Transparency Register, which lets anyone access data on lobbyists, who they are, who they represent, how they are financed and more.
Accounting for voices throughout the supply chain
Advocacy organisations are responsible for collecting a variety of perspectives and combining different voices into one unified message. EFA, which is composed mostly of international fashion councils, relies on its members to convey the varied needs and demands of their stakeholders. It is about to undertake a survey of the 10,000 fashion companies touched by its member councils — the first time it has done so — to pulse-check its priorities, says EFA’s Lipinski. Members of the AAFA are urged to collect perspectives from their supply chain workers to understand their issues, says AAFA’s Lamar.
This can prove difficult for the majority of brands, which have limited supply chain traceability, ultimately affecting how effective policies can be. “If we’re proposing something that won’t work beyond tier two, it falls apart.”
Alliances are crucial for smaller players to be represented, says Tamara Cincik, founder and CEO of UK think tank Fashion Roundtable. “The UK fashion industry is primarily made up of SMEs, which don’t have the resources or expertise to do this alone. This is especially frustrating when they’re trying to challenge the status quo, because the people who have become successful from existing hierarchies will fight back.”
This has happened in the beauty industry for decades, says Jayn Sterland, UK managing director of beauty brand Weleda, which is currently campaigning for the EU to strengthen upcoming legislation on microplastics, and ban them entirely from beauty products. Two of the fellow signatories of Weleda’s open letter — Neal’s Yard Remedies and Plastic Soup Foundation — have had previous success with this approach, contributing to the banning of plastic microbeads in 2015 (with full effect from 2020).
“The legislation is already written and microplastics will be phased out, but the industry has lobbied for a 12-year grace period and some areas — including colour cosmetics and haircare — could be exempt, so it needs to go further,” Sterland explains. “Beauty is a very profitable industry, so we have a plethora of lobbyists. This includes trade bodies, which ultimately serve to protect their members, not human health or the environment. That degree of self-interest is a problem.”
Different routes to action
There are many ways to lobby, but the foundation is very simple, says Climate-KIC’s Lang. “Good lobbying is about building relationships. That takes time, and not every company will have a dedicated policy department to do this, which is why they form interest groups.”
Finding the capacity to think about policy is challenging for often cash-strapped and time-poor brands, says Hilary Jochmans, founder of policy collective Politically in Fashion. “Even large fashion companies tend to have very lean teams, so they lack the bandwidth to engage with policymakers. I always encourage my clients to build relationships with policymakers early on, and not just come in when there’s a crisis.”
Some form smaller, more targeted alliances. Resale platform Vestiaire Collective has endorsed The Or Foundation’s position paper on extended producer responsibility (EPR), and hosted 15 delegates from the Ghana-based nonprofit in France, so they could meet with policymakers. It’s a prime example of how difficult lobbying can be for small entities in fashion, and how more influential brands can help, says The Or Foundation co-founder Liz Ricketts. “Lobbying is part of our global impact strategy,” adds Vestiaire Collective’s sustainability manager Hortense Pruvost. The company has also formed a working group on EPR with other French fashion brands, and is weighing the value of a federation of circular economy players, to accelerate change and lobby across industries.
Read more on Vogue Business